By Robert Turner
I have often written little anecdotes about the wisdom, values and character of farmers. Certain character traits—like patience, hope, courage and a strong work ethic—seem to be required for the job of farming.
The economic full-stop of recent months has helped us all develop a couple of muscles in our heads, like the strengths of patience, courage, moderation and temperance. We’ve been forced to temper our desires for things and to moderate our activities, and we have learned frugality and how to get by with less stuff. In many cases, we’ve found that we don’t really need that much. Recent months have also given people some time to consider self-improvement and mental well-being.
Over the past 100 years the science of psychology and psychiatry has focused almost exclusively on mental disease and illness—mental disorders like neurosis and psychosis, or what can go wrong in people. The more positive side of human nature has been considered outside of the realm of science and usually only discussed in philosophy and the liberal arts.
There is, however, a newer field of study and clinical research called positive psychology that looks at what is good and right in people: those traits that contribute to the mental health and well-being of a person (and, in turn, a society). This research looks closely at character, or the character traits and strengths that make up a person’s personality. A course in positive psychology is now one of the most popular undergrad courses at Harvard and many other universities, so it’s good to see that young people have taken an interest in the study of human virtue.
I read a textbook on the subject (and brother, it’s a big one—over 800 pages) titled Character Strengths and Virtues by Martin Seligman and other prominent researchers, along with several other books on the subject. I tried to answer the question, at least for myself: What are the core human virtues? I came up with a list of seven, which is certainly debatable, and everyone is free to create their own list.
It may not always be easy to identify a character strength until you get to know someone, and it is sometimes easier to spot a character flaw, the strength’s opposite. An expression of a character strength’s opposite is clear evidence that a person does not own or possess a particular trait, and given the relevance of a trait to particular jobs, such as president or senator, I believe it should be considered when we enter an election booth. Here’s my list of the core human virtues. Using the first letters of the traits, I created the acronym “JUSTICE” to help me remember them; with justice also the first of the virtues.
· Justice includes fairness and doing what is right based on moral reasoning, but also the character traits of citizenship and leadership. Opposites are selfishness, egotism, self-centeredness, meanness, prejudice and cruelty.
· Understanding includes wisdom, knowledge and a love of learning. It also includes the traits of creativity, curiosity and open-mindedness. Opposites are ignorance, being misguided or delusional or an inability to see and understand things from different points of view.
· Spirituality (Transcendence) includes the ability to find deeper meaning, to transcend, to sense awe and the sublime, to look beyond your own self-interest and with some deeper experience or reality. It is the ability to sense awe and wonder in art or the natural world, and it also includes traits such gratitude, hope, humor and appreciation of beauty. Opposites include being shallow, trivial, oblivious, crude or banal.
· Temperance means to temper one’s feelings and includes prudence, self-regulation and self-control. This virtue protects us (often from ourselves and excessive behavior). It helps us to look out for our “future selves” and keeps us from regret. It also includes humility and modesty, forgiveness and mercy. Opposites are rash behavior, over-reacting, gluttony, addiction, rage, arrogance, hate and other uncontrolled emotions—primarily due to a lack of self-control.
· Industry includes self-reliance and a strong work ethic; working hard to achieve one’s goals; persistence and determination. It includes pulling your weight and working to provide for your family. It also includes vitality, zest and exercise to increase strength, energy and capacity for industry. Opposites are sloth, laziness and dependence on others for basic needs.
· Courage includes bravery, but also includes such traits as perseverance (to endure suffering and hardship), honesty and integrity. Opposites are cowardice, dishonesty and overwhelming and uncontrolled fear.
· Equality (Humanity) To believe in equality is to believe in humanity or the sameness of all human beings, and it includes love, kindness and relationships, and an ability to connect with others. It also includes empathy, an ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and to understand the human condition, and a belief in the fair and equal treatment of others. Opposites are shallowness, self-interest, petty self-concern, hate and an inability to connect with others and humanity.
Research shows that character strengths and virtue can be developed, like a muscle in your arm, with practice and exercise. Focus on it, push past your comfort level and you’ll build that strength.
While all farmers do not possess all of the key character traits to the same degree, I believe their occupation has helped them to develop a few more than others. And everyone, each one of us, has a few key character strengths that we bring to the table. What are yours?
Robert Turner is the director of the Creekside Farm Education Center and the author of Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees: Building Sustainable and Resilient Communities. To learn more, visit EatYourView.com.